Saturday, September 26, 2009

BOOK REVIEW - Norah Vincent - Self-Made Man

This book is a rare find, a book written by a woman, that empathises with and tries to get underneath the car bonnet of the masculine predicament. Often discussions in this area are so reductive and lazy, relying on upholding existing feminist shibboleths or respecting PC no go areas. It invariably becomes hedge bound by a generalised view of man as brute oppressor and woman as the innocent oppressed victim. This pattern, has always felt to me, as a man, to be an infuriatingly incomplete outline, largely ignoring how both sexes are subject to social self limiting constraints. The way things are between the sexes is co-produced and co-conditioned. Each sex living in states of dependence upon, and recrimination towards, the other. The prevailing view of relationships between men and women, is that men as the holders of power are advantaged by this, making them the primary cause of the disfunctionality within society. Whilst this may be true in the general picture it paints, its executed with rather a broad brush stroke. Its similar to describing water as being only wet, when its manifestations can be so different depending on context and circumstance.

Norah Vincent, decided, as research for a future book, to explore the different contexts, circumstances and manifestations of masculinity by spending a year disguised as a man. She worked out how to bluff externally being a man, and then set about bravely joining bowling clubs, getting a job in sales, going to lap dancing clubs, monasteries and men's groups. Though externally male, internally her feminine perspective and an acute sensitivity are brought to bare on her experience. Firstly, she notices how mens gaze differs, she's used to being an object of desire, but was now being assessed as a potential threat. When trying to pick up a women, she recounts the teasing defensive games women play with men, the mocking and often derisory behaviour, and then gives you the male experience of it, the ever present fear of being humiliated or rejected. Though initially finding her prejudices strongly reinforced, she remained open to what she was actually experiencing, and noticing when this diverged from her first view. The way men actually think, speak and behave, when not taken literally on face value, begins to confound, contradict, or simply fail to fit the stereotype. A man who frequents strip clubs could simply be seen as sexually powerful, voracious, exploitative, amoral even, but why then do those same males extol the virtues and love of their wives, and faithfully follow their partners injunctions. What is going on here has a lot more too it than the masculine libido?

I found myself resonating with her descriptions of the contemporary masculine predicament. The games and poses men are expected to hold, to simultaneously be stoical, stable and strong, whilst, these days, also being expected to be broadly expressive of our feelings and emotionally sensitive. It's little wonder if some of us don't know which to do for the best. Most of the time we get it wrong. Its clear some of the men she meets are confused, fucked up and sometimes angry and pissed off. The language may sometimes be crude unsophisticated in vocabulary, but these men are all suffering. They can't truly be themselves because they are afraid, afraid that other men, women, or society will in some way no longer find them acceptable. Most gay men, like all men, learn to pretend, put on an acceptable mask. we skate along the edge of a precipice, knowing we'll never quite fit the conventional male stereotype, this can be nerve wracking. Being a woman, dressed as a man, is the ultimate mask. What would happen if anyone found out? In some, but not all, of the places she goes, she does reveal herself to the men she's deceived, and this process proves almost more revealing about masculinity than the deception. By the end she realises that the dominant response of the men to her deception, wasn't anger - but embarrassment.

Norah Vincent makes numerous thought provoking observations, but none more telling than one concerning the gender differences over expressing emotions. Women have the social ability to express and converse about a huge range of feelings and emotions, all except anger, anger is not considered acceptable for a woman to express, and has to be repressed. For men, the situation is almost entirely reversed, anger is the only emotion a man can freely express and no one will think any the worse of him, he might even be admired for it. The expression of a broader range of feelings and emotions is unacceptable masculine behaviour, and is therefore repressed,you might be thought worse of for expressing them. There was the ever present fear of being thought gay, but mostly it was the ever present fear of just not being thought a man. The emotions don't go away, they come to a boil just beneath the surface, emerging often in socially unacceptable or perverted ways.

Her visit to the monastery was quite poignant. These monks, in a situation where they could be more intimate with each other, were still bound by the same masculine conventions, if not more so, because of the chastity. It wasn't easy to encourage intimacy to take place; during their social evenings, the abbot had experimented with introducing a period of hugging. This hadn't lasted long, because most of them were so deeply alienated from emotions they'd either ignored or repressed, that hugging itself became a deeply emotional trauma. This was not the first time whilst reading 'Self Made Man' that I experienced, not the ridiculous or pitiful state of contemporary manhood, but how profoundly sad it was.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

BOOK REVIEW - The Essential Sangharakshita

In my early days of involvement with the FWBO, I read hardly anything outside the Suttas and Sangharakshita's lucid commentaries and explanations of the Dharma. I heard tapes, and watched videos of his talks, and saw him give short ones live, once or twice. But by the time of my involvement the days of his best talks were, even by his own admission, dwindling or past, he had already said so much of what he felt needed to be said. One is often struck in his autobiographies by how energetic and prolific he has been throughout his life. What it must have been like to be around him then, only the disciples who were present then can tell us. I've only really been aware of him in his pre and post-retirement phase, as he was in the process of standing down from being the head of the WBO.

Sangharakshita's written and public style of presentation, I've not always found uniformly accessible, his expression can appear stilted, over formal, old fashioned, even imaginatively dry. Though the content has never been anything other than clear and apt. I was therefore surprised whilst reading this compendium of his writing, by how coherent,visually rich and eloquent his writing can be. Though this may to an extent be down to superb editing, it can't entirely be a result of it. Perhaps some of my own resistances present in those early days of involvement,were coloured by how I heard those trenchant words of exposition and encouragement, not what I heard.

'The Essential Sangharakshita, draws from quite a wide spectrum of his output, from books he wrote, to later transcriptions, or adaptions from his many seminars, which he had some input into the editing of. Vidyadevi, the editor for this project, has over the years worked tirelessly on these seminars turning them into coherently themed books, with his overview and input ever present, of course. So she was,without doubt,the ideal person to be involved in compiling this book. It hss obviously been commissioned by Wisdom Publications, because there is a great respect there for his vision. It is, for those unfamiliar with his work, a comprehensive introduction to the main themes of Sangharakshita's perception and rendition of the Dharma, and its essential practices. One theme logically flows onto the next, and though the source material is disparate, it appears seamless, as if this was originally conceived as an enormous series of carefully thought out lectures spoken over several decades. It is a vivid expression of one mans consistent vision of the Dharma, that you get carried along by. There is a recognisable steadiness to the tone and level of communication, that is very far from inaccessible, or dull. This man remains very alive to the contemporary world, and Western social trends.

He's not afraid to be controversial with his criticisms either, often confronting head on the modern shibboleths of political correctness, relativism, rights and duties etc. This hasn't made his views necessarily popular with some Buddhists in the West, even, a times, within his own order. Though he's clear we need to adapt Buddhism to our own culture, he feels it must never be done by diluting or distorting the message of the Dharma. His writing is frequently an extended critique of modern culture and mores, and how these diverge from Buddhist thought. Even becoming, on occasions, as near as Sangharakshita ever gets to a rant. For when he's on a role about something, such as war and the pursuit of peace in the twentieth century, he becomes something of an unstoppable force - an angel of clarity dispelling the fog of bland statements and sound bites that bedevil our worldly perceptions and expression. This book seems both timely in its appearance, for his own Order to reassess the larger corpus of his legacy, and all too relevant to the world outside it too, because this is what the Dharma should be.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

DIARY 112 - At home with the goldfish

I took this week off work. Originally I wanted to take a weeks solitary retreat in October. But then work restricted October leave, and suggested anyone wanting time off take it in September. After asking around various venues nothing quite fitted the time I had available. I adjusted my expectations, deciding to stay at home, on not quite a holiday, but by no means a solitary either. Jnanasalin was away during this period for about five days, so I had a chance of being alone at least some of the time. The week before, I heard of a vacancy at a solitary retreat venue, but by then I was mentally readjusted to being 'at home'.

Abbey House during the day,at least in my half of it, is relatively quiet, with few phone calls. Theoretically, it seemed it possible to have a degree of undisturbed space for reflection, practice, reading, writing, painting or just generally hanging about. I remained open to it being all, some or none of these. With Jnanasalin's return and adapting to the physical demands of a new job, happening at around the same time, I've found myself operating a lot in a responsive, adaptive mode. I've felt as if I was out of focus, a bit blurred at the edges, spiritually speaking.

As it turned out I did no more meditation practice than I normally do, if anything slightly less. I read daily from the Digha Nikaya. For a few days I was writing a Shabda report ( Shabda is an internal publication of the Western Buddhist Order, where members write in about there lives, thoughts and practice.) Writing this began turning my mind to exactly what my semi-solitary reflections were going to focus on. It was clear I wanted to deepen my understanding and practice of Kalyana Mitrata ( spiritual friendship ) in some way. I couldn't locate a specific Sutta, or commentary, that went into this in any more depth than I'd already imbibed or intuitively grasped.

In the end, I came back to an old favorite -The Four Samgrahavastus - often referred to, perhaps a little too grandly as The Means Of Unification of the Sangha. For four days I spent a few hours each day reflecting and writing on these. I didn't look into the specific detail of my practice, but explored widely how one practices the Samgrahavastus, to understand better how they could benefit both oneself and the Sangha. The Samgrahavastus are - Generosity - Kindly or Affectionate Speech - Beneficial Activity - Exemplification. Through my reflections it became clear how fundamental generosity was, as the essential underpinning to all the other Samgrahvastus'. The other three are either a natural outcome of practicing generosity;in that through practicing generosity you would be kind and affectionate for instance. or the resulting fruit of it; in that others would benefit from it, or would be a quality you would exemplify.

The Four Samgahavastus are sometimes referred to as the altruistic activity of a Bodhisattva ( a being who vows to save all sentient beings before accepting full enlightenment themselves ) This act of delay, to put other peoples needs before your own, is the ultimate generous impulse. So this unsurprisingly brought me back to a central tenet of our Order - The Bodhisattva Ideal, its something I don't always readily recognise that I practice. After all, I'm not, ultimately, practicing Kalyana Mitrata for my benefit at all. In looking at myself, I acknowledge that I'm already willing to drop what I'm doing to make myself available to others, if I'm able. Supporting others seems a central, almost instinctual, practice for me, and even through this recent 'out of focus' period, what I've been doing is being a stable, supportive presence for others benefit. This may largely unconscious competence, but there does appear to be a reliable consistency to how I am, that others appear to find valuable, and have said so on a number of occasions to me.

What resulted from these 'at home' reflections, is that there doesn't appear to be anything I need to specifically add to what I currently do. But, I could get more behind what I do quite naturally, and deepen that purely by making it more consciously a practice. To seize opportunities to be generous, in the moment of them. Though generosity, as an activity, doesn't necessarily have to be seen at all, nor does there have to be an explanation or reason for it, either. It just needs expressing as a natural efflorescence of being human. But once I set out to practice this, the first thing I encounter are the current boundaries, those moments where I stifle the impulse, or self-censor it. So to keep this intention alive, and those boundaries permeable,will be a practice in itself. I'll need to remain alert. I could easily switch off to it and settle back into the usual groove of behaviour. To bring this generosity of spirit more consciously to mind, or my intention will easily evaporate.

By Friday, if I was a broiled chicken, I think I'd be described as a little spiritually overcooked. I began to find myself flagging, if not strongly resisting doing any further practice. A period of absorption was required, if not demanded, of me, so I took my foot off the accelerator and chilled out. As if knowing this, my room in the house was instantly surrounded by external activity and clatter, as numerous people appeared to prepare windows for repair or paint. I was no longer entirely alone during the day. My only way to escape this was to go out, to stroll, shop or cook. Cooking is a great way to be generous towards my community, in my case by preparing more elaborate meals than I would normally do, or making cakes. I can view cooking for the community as simply a duty one does as a member of it, maybe even as a chore at times. Its also an opportunity to give in a very practical way, meeting an obvious need, one which also delights and pleases others.

Its all too easy to become over preoccupied with my apparent needs, my need for time and space, my need to write or paint, as if my enjoyment of life truly depended on it. I often neglect the easy satisfaction to be gained from generosity. There is a fulfillment, a completeness and calm to be gained from it. It's as if all the angst ridden striving for self-expression is far too obsessively driven to really give us what we want - which is to be restfully at peace with ourselves and the world. Rather than settling the mud in the water, it repeatedly stirs it up. Essentially generosity is not an act of self-expression, it moves us away from a completely ego centred existence, in the direction of self-transcendence. The intensity of that self-centred view melts away once one begins responding to desires to help, to give to others in often quite astoundingly simple ways. Generosity doesn't have to be a big deal, in fact its probably better kept low key, otherwise ones ego is likely to want to steal the lifeforce of your new pet goldfish.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

FEATURE 31 - Gyorgy Ligeti

Like much of Ligeti's work 'Poeme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes' has a premise and execution that has such a barmy surreal charm to it, you can't help but smirk as you listen and watch it unravel. He wasn't entirely serious was he? He must have had his tongue firmly in his cheek most of the time, simultaneously goading both serious classicists and serious philistines to fulminate in their respective corners. Whether you consider it music or not, seems kinda irrelevant,as an event it does seem to entertain and engage your attention regardless of however you choose to designate it You gotta admire the sheer gall of the guy.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

FEATURE 30 - 9/11 - The Falling Man

As the anniversary of 9/11 comes around once more there is no more poignant visual reminder than this picture of a man falling from the top of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Channel 4 chose to rebroadcast a programme called The Falling Man, to mark this sad date, which is well worth viewing. The films of people falling from the tower were so emotionally charged and visceral, they moved me to tears. Imaginatively you place oneself in their position, cut off on the top floor of a burning building, increasingly heat and smoke about to reach you, to cruelly bring your life to an end. You are trapped. At that point what would we decide ? To stay and surrender ourselves to the looming conflagration - or to take what control we have left over how we are to die, jump into the air and fall thousands of feet, hitting the streets, as one person described it, 'with a thudding sound like a sack of potatoes.'

As the 10th Anniversary looms closer, the growing clamor of conspiracy theories are in danger of drowning out how this was fundamentally a human tragedy. Thousands of innocent Americans died in a matter of hours in an horrific manner, which should never be lost sight of. But there is also the tragic background to this event - of the suicide hijackers themselves, who conceived this plan to reek revenge for the suffering their own ordinary people, on the US government and its people, whom they believe are responsible for supporting this oppression. When conspiracy theorists high jack 9/11 for there own purposes, all this gets lost in their aberrant conjecture.

I have been quite disturbed and shocked by some of these theories -that the US government would knowingly sacrifice thousands of their own people in order to bring about a war for geopolitical advantage. It's as if two airplanes hitting two of the tallest towers in the world, causing massive causalities and finally structural collapse, done purely as an act of revenge, is not inhumane and unbelievable enough. We have to give a more reasonable explanation that, bizarrely, becomes even more fantastical. Were it to be true, then two planes hitting the Twin Towers, was the minor abomination against humanity.

We choose to believe what we like. I fundamentally cannot believe, or get a handle on, the Machiavellian nature of these conspiracy theories. I don't believe governments have that much forethought, or the ability to foresee outcomes, or control events in this way. I think they are far too incompetent, and gaff prone to pull this audacious sort of thing off. Governments are usually focused so much on short term popularity, and getting re-elected, they can't think beyond the confines of their current term in power. There may be cause to doubt or be sceptical about the story as they present it to us. But I'll wager that the reasons are more about them, in a panic, trying to hurriedly cover someones back, or the secret services strategic incompetence, than covering up a grand abdominal plan.

The events surrounding the Two Towers are unique, its not normal, it doesn't conform to reason. People do strange, odd, even barmy sounding things in the face of such a cataclysm. The conspiracy theories attempt to give the unreasonableness of this act of violence, a unreasonable reason. There has to be an overarching reason, it can't just remain incomprehensible. Its one way of trying to come to terms with its horror. Some people too readily believe these theories because they reinforce existing prejudices - that the US is the source of all evil - in the face of which we should be vigilant and sceptical, in order to oppose their satanic works. What I find somewhat incompatible with this standpoint, is that folk hear the need to be sceptical, and then abandon their scepticism to believe the sceptics, lock stock and barrel i.e. entirely uncritically. What they say becomes the unvarnished truth, simply because they're defacto -Not The Government - they must be telling it how it is. We don't even know who these conspiracy theorists are,where they are coming from, what private agenda or vested interest they might have. How selective they've been with the evidence, what has been deliberately ignored, or left out? How balanced is their judgement?

In this age of cynicism, yes, we do need to be suspicious about a governments motives, and the spin they put on things, but we also need to remain suspicious about the motives and spin of alternative viewpoints. Otherwise, we'll be making judgements based not on the broad basis of established facts, but on speculative conjecture, suppositions, assumptions, or worse than that blind prejudice. Hitler was once a lone voice of truth.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

PRACTICE 4 - Learning to go with the grain

Quentin Crisp was a man of great wit and occasional clear perception. His well honed remarks cutting cut right through any cant or sentimentality around a subject, piercing the truth of the matter. That the rapier like speed of this might tend towards waspish insensitivity, was a failing. He wasn't always a pleasant man to be around. But we all can so easily get carried away with the cleverness of our wit at someone elses expense, that the hurt given to the object of it becomes overshadowed by the self- intoxicating delight of the retort. Humour without the barbs being extracted first, is something I've been very prone to in the past. On occasions something still pops out of my mouth that brings regret and shame about my speech in its wake. Someone recently asked me to explain what something was, and instead of giving them a clear explanation, I responded with a sarcastic parody. They asked for facts and what I gave them was a soured opinion. It highlighted that I still have a little jaundiced devil that likes to come out for an airing from time to time.

However, what brought dear Quentin to mind wasn't this, but a particular aphorism of his. It concerns how he came to terms with other peoples response to his effeminacy - "the time comes for everybody when he has to do deliberately what he used to do by mistake" - for Quentin he saw this as the only way to get 'the joke' of people laughing at or mocking his appearance, onto his 'own terms'. Though this obviously had a defensive advantage, it also developed a seemingly unshakable confidence in who he was. Quentin Crisp would never have been seen dead joining a gay support group, or any group for that matter, for him belonging to a group was an act of self betrayal. This is why he was, who he was, in some depth. For him if we were here for any purpose at all, it was to fully embody who we are, to pull back the blanket of self limitation and conformity to uncover what our individual 'style' looked, smelt and tasted like - "ask yourself, 'if there were no praise, and no blame, who would I be then?' Then you'll know who you are, and what your style is."

Knowing deeply who one is and being firmly confident in that, is a state not that easy to achieve. We can misperceive ourselves, lack clarity or honesty, or simply be mislead by what we think we are doing. Arrogance can often be mistaken for confidence, and passivity be mistaken for humility. Though Quentin Crisp habitually drifted towards arrogance and rarely countenanced humility, the origin of his confidence was undoubtedly born out of real pain, from regularly having to face adversity. We all tend to learn this way, to find out what sort of person we are through wrestling with our character and the circumstances bequeathed us, often from birth. If self-awareness is present this can be instructive, if it is absent we can often be blown unconsciously hither and thither by the eight worldly winds of praise & blame, gain & loss, fame & infamy and happiness & despair. We often waste our energy and initiative, seeking resolution to our internal suffering by attempting to alter ourselves or the external world to fit our preferences. This frequently sets us at odds with the natural grain of reality, or even ourselves, and we all know how difficult it is to plane against the grain of a piece of wood. We rarely try to do the opposite - to go with the grain. Perhaps that seems far too easy, it couldn't possibly work, could it? Isn't there a danger here of accepting the unacceptable? Yet lets not lose sight of the fact that to plane simultaneously with the grain of our own character and that of reality is a state of integration that's a precondition for Enlightenment. This isn't really about self-acceptance, but alignment with how things really are with ourselves and reality.

That state of Enlightenment can seem so lofty and unachievable, but all journeys begin somewhere. Quentin's little aphorism points towards a very practical starting point - to do 'deliberately' what we've previously done, perhaps not by mistake, but certainly more from personal instinct. You begin by noticing the things you do automatically without thinking, what you do from preference because its of innate unquestionable value to you, positive skillful habits that you may have always cultivated, perhaps even before becoming a Buddhist - the things that in essence we've always put personal faith in. Well, Quentin Crisp suggests these are what you should cultivate more consciously, to plane with the positive grain, the 'style' of ones own character, not against it. I do emphasize here that its the positive skillful things that should be done more 'deliberately', we shouldn't encourage unethical behaviour for instance. Such negative unskilful habits at best should be seen as 'flaws' in the wood. If done with kindness and skill, even such apparent unethical 'flaws' can be eventually be worn smooth and integrated by practice, bringing a uniquely individual grain and patterning to the final polished finish.

In the earlier decades of my life I expended far too much time and effort in trying to be something I either wanted to be, or thought I should be, but in either case I was not. But, to an extent, even these repeated efforts eventually taught me two things - what I was not - and how futile and painful such efforts were. Though one should develop and acquire positive personal behaviours, one has also to recognise somethings are so hard wired into how we are that changing them might take a lifetime or more, if ever. Would that be a good use of our energy, effort and time? Though its good to know where our weak areas are, there is greater benefit to be had from identifying and working from and with ones strengths. Otherwise its like constantly trying to stay upright and balanced on a wobbly bridge.

I know, for instance, not only how much I've benefited from kalyana mitrata (spiritual friendship) personally, but also how a natural sense of empathy,and wanting to be helpful, even if that's only in being a good listening ear, are all things I do quite instinctively. Lately I've been giving further reflection to how I might take this aspect of my spiritual practice deeper. I'm not clear, as yet what form this might take, but it will inevitable mean giving more of myself in someway. This would be like rubbing nourishing polish into wood, or applying varnish to deepen and bring out its inherent grain. Somehow I need to stretch myself, to test the muscles of this innate tendency in order to deliberately strengthen it. To get, not 'the joke', but myself more fully aligned with the reality of my own terms.